Detail showing the portrait of Dante (probably the oldest and closest to reality), part of a fresco depicting paradise in the Palazzo del Bargello in Florence. The fresco was created by Giotto’s workshop, between 1330 and 1337.

“Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries, is the greatest poet of medieval Europe and one of the greatest poets of humanity. Moreover, due to the profound religious inspiration of his work, he should also be considered Christianity’s greatest poet”.[1]

Alighieri’s date of birth is uncertain (the form of his surname was established by Boccaccio). It is known that he was baptized under the name of Durante on Holy Saturday, March 27, 1266, in the “bel San Giovanni” [handsome St. John] (Inf. XIX 17), the famous baptistery in Florence. If we then consider that the Divine Comedy begins with the phrase, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way” (Inf. I, 1) and that, in accordance with Scripture itself, the average life span was thought to be about seventy years (cf. Ps 90:10), one can imagine that Dante was talking about himself as being thirty-five. Finally, if the journey to the three realms of the afterlife is really set in 1300, although this, too, is a deduction, and we are in the year of the first Jubilee announced by Boniface VIII, the Poet should then have been born in 1265, between May 21 and June 21, that is, under the sign of Gemini, as he himself seems to declare in his work (cf. Par. XXII 111).
He soon was orphaned, losing first his mother, then his father. However, he inherited some modest assets, enough to let him devote himself to studies and public life. Around 1285, he married Gemma di Brunetto Donati. They had four children together: Giovanni, for whom we have only one uncertain document; Pietro, who died in 1364 and was buried in the Church of San Francesco in Treviso; Jacopo, who is remembered as one of the commentators on his father’s work; and Antonia, who, according to tradition, entered the monastery of Santo Stefano degli Ulivi in Ravenna taking the name of Sister Beatrice.
In 1274, at the age of nine, Dante met the more famous Beatrice for the first time, whom the ancient commentators identified as the daughter of Folco Portinari. She would later become the wife of Simone dei Bardi.
Dante fell madly in love with her, wooing her initially according to the canons of courtly love, singing about the sweetness of her gaze, the beauty of her face and the grace and modesty of her gestures. Her death in 1290 would throw Dante into a profound spiritual and poetic crisis, a state of bewilderment between false loves and futile purposes. That year he began to attend “the schools of the religious Orders and the disputations held by the philosophers” (as he himself wrote in Convivio II XII 7). He would go among the Franciscans of Santa Croce to learn more about the thought of St. Bonaventure and visit the Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella to study St. Thomas Aquinas.

Dante began participating in the political life of his city. Between 1295 and 1296 he took part in the Council of the Captain of the People, the Council of the Elders and the Council of the Hundred. In 1300, he was elected for a two-month period among the Priors, the highest body of the Municipality. In 1302, his support for the moderately popular policy of the White Guelphs, as opposed to the more conservative and aristocratic policy of the Black Guelphs[2] supported by Boniface VIII, caused him to be sentenced in absentia, resulting in a fine, confinement and a lifelong ban from public office. Then, for refusing to submit to what he considered an unfair verdict he was condemned to the stake. Thus he began the exile that would take him to Verona, “his first refuge and his first inn.” (cf. Par. XVII 70) and finally to Ravenna, an experience that “constituted a punctum dolens [crucial point] in Dante’s painful biography, but above all a foundational topos [topic] in the work of the divine Poet, in fact, as Pasquini writes, ‘if there is anything that is beyond doubt in the assessment posterity has made of Dante, it would certainly be the importance of exile in his life; the fact that it marked a decisive turning point in the existence and work of our author.’[3] In Dante’s work, the theme of exile initially appears as bitter anguish for an injustice suffered and heartbreaking nostalgia for one’s far-off homeland. But in the artistic process, the bitterness of indignation and pain fades away, merging with the nostalgia and regret of the souls in purgatory, in a melancholy acceptance of wandering, devoid of any hope in human justice. The progressive loss of focus on one individual’s pain culminates with the end of the ideal journey (Paradise XVII and XXV), where the condition of exile becomes a universal symbol of a humanity uprooted from the divine”.

[1] Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, Dante Alighieri. Invito alla lettura, Cinisello Balsamo, San Paolo, 2001, p. 9.
[2] The Guelphs and Ghibellines were two opposing factions in Italian politics during the Late Middle Ages, in particular from the 12th  century until the rise of the signoria in the 14th century. The origins of the names date back to the death of Emperor Henry V in 1125, when a fight for the imperial crown ensued between the Bavarian and Saxon families of the House of Welf, (hence the word “Guelph”), with those in the Swabian House of Hohenstaufen, the lords of the castle of Waiblingen, formerly Wibeling, hence the word “Ghibelline”. In time, the Swabian house acquired the imperial crown and, with Frederick I Hohenstaufen, tried to consolidate their power in the Kingdom of Italy.  In this political sphere the struggle evolved to designate those who supported the empire (Ghibellines) and those who opposed it by supporting the papacy (Guelphs). In Dante’s day, Guelph Florence was divided into two factions: the White Guelphs were gathered around the Cerchi family, proponents of a moderate pro-papal policy, who managed to govern from 1300 to 1301. The Black Guelphs, a financial and commercial aristocratic group, were more closely linked to the interests of the Church. They were headed by Corso Donati, who came to power with the help of Charles of Valois who had been sent to them by Pope Boniface VIII. The main families of Florence all sided with one or the other faction. Matteo Cardinal d’Acquasparta, the papal legate, arrived in Florence. However since the White Guelphs refused to resign from their offices, the cardinal legate left Florence, launching an interdict on the city. Rioting erupted, at the end of which, the Municipality sent the leaders of the factions into exile. The Black Guelphs, with Corso Donati, were confined to Castel della Pieve, the White Guelphs, including Dante, went to Sarzana.
[3] Emilio Pasquini, La parabola dell’esilio, in Dante e le figure del vero. La fabbrica della “Commedia”, Milan, Mondadori, 2001, p. 122.